The Assumption of Immortality
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There is that part of the mind that assumes we are immortal, no matter how rational or informed we might be about the real state of the world and our own personal future - absent intervention - of aging, suffering, and death. Organized religion may have its origin in this, coupled with our tendencies towards anthropomorphism and desire for immediate answers to replace unknowns, even if those answers are incorrect. The line of thinking in a prehistoric society runs as follows: if we are immortal, then so are our dead ancestors, and who is moving the sun? These things lead to their natural conclusions.

To what degree is the inner assumption of immortality - in and of itself - something that drives public disinterest in work on rejuvenation biotechnology? I'm not completely convinced that it is important versus, say, the influence of modern religious culture, or the widespread mistaken belief that extending life would mean extending the period of frailty and suffering in old age. But it is a part of the puzzle: why are people so unwilling to help their future selves avoid pain, suffering, and death?

Most studies on immortality or "eternalist" beliefs have focused on people's views of the afterlife. Studies have found that both children and adults believe that bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling sad, continue in some form. But these afterlife studies leave one critical question unanswered: where do these beliefs come from? Researchers have long suspected that people develop ideas about the afterlife through cultural exposure, like television or movies, or through religious instruction. But perhaps [these] ideas of immortality actually emerge from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, maybe they also intuit that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.

[Researchers] interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. For comparison, [they] also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, Ecuador. Both groups gave remarkably similar answers, despite their radically different cultures. The children reasoned that their bodies didn't exist before birth, and that they didn't have the ability to think or remember. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally reported that they didn't have eyes and couldn't see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family. "They didn't even realize they were contradicting themselves. Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form. And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires."

Why would humans have evolved this seemingly universal belief in the eternal existence of our emotions? [It] might be a by-product of our highly developed social reasoning. "We're really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are." We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behavior. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there's a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.

Link: http://www.bu.edu/news/2014/01/27/boston-university-study-examines-the-development-of-childrens-prelife-reasoning/

Comments

Hmmm. I don't think public disinterest in work on rejuvenation biotechnology is due to an assumption, conscious or sub-conscious, of immortality.

A simpler answer is that we're just not that afraid of death, probably because being afraid wouldn't be useful from the point of evolution. We are very afraid of death in specific circumstances where we are in danger. But once that danger has past we just go back into our dream like state. Imagine if your mind was constantly on your impending death in 40 years time. You wouldn't be able to get anything useful (like finding a partner or raising kids) done. Right now is the first time in history were a large fear of death by aging could be useful, if it leads to rejuvenation biotechnologies.

I think the other aspect of the public's apathy is that there isn't a simple demonstration that massively delaying or even getting rid of aging is possible. One of the reasons stem cell research gets so much support is that the public already know that we come from a single cell, so it should be possible to make new body parts from our cells. Someone who has some knowledge of biology and who has read through the slightly complex hypothesis of the SENS approach to aging as damage that can be repaired can see how this approach is possible. But getting to this level of understanding is beyond the time Joe average public is willing to spend looking at this.

I think a demonstration of repair of one of the seven types of SENS damage in a mouse would go a long way to convincing the public and gaining attention and support. Look at the support that Sirtins have gathered, even though they don't work. I think removing senescent cells in a mouse may be the first breakthrough.

Posted by: Jim at January 28, 2014 8:38 AM

"A simpler answer is that we're just not that afraid of death, probably because being afraid wouldn't be useful from the point of evolution. We are very afraid of death in specific circumstances where we are in danger. But once that danger has past we just go back into our dream like state. Imagine if your mind was constantly on your impending death in 40 years time."

I confess then that I must be an evolutionary anomaly because that's precisely how I feel.

At any rate, suppose people are presented with the possibility of new rejuvenation technology allowing them to live another health 15 or 20 years. In practice, this would have to mean SENS-type multipronged anti-aging treatments. But framed in such a modest way, a majority of people would support it.

Posted by: Therapsid at January 28, 2014 9:51 AM

@Jim
I think your second point nailed it.

@Therapsid
"suppose people are presented with the possibility of new rejuvenation technology allowing them to live another health 15 or 20 years. In practice, this would have to mean SENS-type multipronged anti-aging treatments. But framed in such a modest way, a majority of people would support it."

This is definitely the fault of the mainstream media. They have to generate clicks so they use titles like "Would You Want To Live Forever?". On top of that you have all the singularity obessors who run around preaching about "immorality". Both hurt the cause.

Posted by: Johnathan at January 28, 2014 12:08 PM

Re-reading what I wrote, I can see that people not having a fear of death, or people assuming they are immortal, is in practice the same thing.

I think Marcel Proust was the first philosopher to examine this in detail when he questioned why people act like they will live forever, largely in response to a Paris newspaper asking the academics and celebrities of the day how they would act if it was discovered that a large comet would destroy the world in six months time.

If you are 45 years old in a developed country with a life expectancy of 80, you have roughly 35 more years to live.

Imagine if it was discovered that such a large comet was definitely going to hit the earth in 35 years time. Governments would spend billions or trillions on averting the disaster.

But, we will all die at different points in the future, which is perhaps one reason for collective inaction. I think the uncertainty of the time until the event makes it difficult for humans to think about properly. Insurance companies and Economists can show that people are very bad at judging very high and low risks, maybe this is something similar?

Once again the other problem is just the lack of understanding of the possibility for delaying or averting aging entirely. The division amongst scientists as to whether or not a SENS damage repair approach could actually work also muddies the waters for joe average public. So I think a demo of one of the seven SENS approaches in mice could make a difference as it would shut the critics up. With stem cells I don't imagine that there were ever too many scientist naysayers, as people could just turn around and say "every part of every person comes from a single cell, explain to my why it is impossible to replicate this thing that has already happened".

It might be wishful thinking, but if senescent cells get removed successfully in a mouse model, with a method that could be used in humans, and there is a health or cosmetic benefit, then it may get picked up by a pharma company. This is what happened with Sirtins and David Sinclair's labs in Harvard/Australia (who founded Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and then sold it to GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million).

Posted by: Jim at January 29, 2014 12:08 AM

Sometimes I like to correlate the present day outlook on aging research with the large amount of people in all cultures and parts of the world that are religious.

Do people (A) come to the conclusion that they will age until the day that they die, so they go to their religion for spiritual immortality instead of the biological? Or, (B) We are innately religious at the beginning so when we hear about aging research, we say "Oh, why waste efforts on that when a heavenly paradise awaits me in the afterlife?"

After all, every religion guarantees an afterlife, right?

Is it a safe assumption that one is the cause, or is it a merry-go-round thinking process that consists of both..???

Posted by: Donald at February 1, 2014 9:09 AM
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